On Book Covers and Online Summaries: The Bumper Stickers That Define Us
Driving in a huge metropolis has in it many challenges. One is, like Sartre, the hell that is other people in other cars.
Not really in a hurry but not on a leisurely drive to work, I'm confronted with a Honda Civic going much slower than either the posted limit or the flow of traffic. "Let's go, you fucking hippies!" I grumble and then it hits me: why "hippies" exactly?
The answer was in the two bumper stickers on the back of her car: one of the "Give Peace a Chance" stripe and the other a Greenpeace ad.
Now the thoughts starting to percolate in the vintage coffee pot that is my medulla oblongata, the next time I'm in traffic, I start to notice my micro-complaining at various bad drivers and notice a trend. No labels, no specifics in the pejorative. In plain, if a Prius cuts me off, my mind says "Fucking NPR." Which is only ironic in that I drive a Prius and used to work for... If a car that takes too long to turn left in front of me has a Blackhawks sticker, it's "Goddamn Blackhawk fuckwad!" No label or obvious marker? It's just "Fucking asshole!" and we move on.
I'm pretty sure this isn't a specific phenomenon esoteric to me.
In a city with so many people, creating a look, or a label to identify yourself in some way makes perfect sense. Belonging to a tribe has roots in the very evolution of the species. We even try to create non-conformist groups, which is an irony that borders on the absurd. So we wear the badges and clothing. We get the tattoos, adopt the language, and, like on Facebook, project an identity we want to belong to rather than the complicated reality of who it is we are. The double-edge to that sword of identification is that your behavior becomes a small mark on the group you adhere to.
Sometimes we try to identify with tribes of which we don't belong. Rachel Dolezal wanted so badly to be a black woman, she darkened her skin, made up a fake parent, changed her hair, and passed for years before her real parents outed her. The changing of a last name that identifies one as from Somewhere Else to a name homogenized to fit in with the majority is a tale told too many times. Likewise is the changing of one's homogenized name to something that identifies with an outlier mentality (Malcolm X was not his given name…).
According to the NYT, “Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty. The building strength of partisan antipathy — 'negative partisanship' — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters.”
This means that those labels we wear, those bumper stickers on our cars and declarations of allegiance are automatic triggers for unwarranted hostility. This hostility is translating into darker times for our republic. When animosity is the predominant rationale for our forward momentum we all become less thoughtful, less compassionate, less reasoning.
We become, on a daily basis, that asshole in the car honking his ass off because you are taking a bit too long to turn.
Further, as we continue our reckless spiral down the social media rabbit hole, the theater of online discourse becomes reality despite the fact that everyone one of us is creating a semi-biographical pose online. Our avatars suddenly become who we are to everyone in sight and instigate a pernicious stereotyping far beyond that of skin color or sex or language.
Not long ago, I ran into someone who has only ever known me from my Faceborg profile. She only knew me as the Guy Pilloried Online by Assholes Two Years Ago. I had no idea who she was and, in my perspective, she was simply a barista. She recognized me and was instantly just a bit hostile.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“No. But I know you.”
“Oh, really? How?”
“I’ve heard stories about you. You’re just a garbage dump of a human being.”
I started to get pissy but reigned that in. I didn’t know her but she had made a judgment on who I was based on nothing more than the heresay of social media.
“Great. Thanks for the coffee.”
Last week, while substitute teaching at a charter school on the far South Side, one of the ninth graders looks at me.
“Mr. Hall? Did you ever ride a motorcycle?”
“Yeah. I used to.”
“You look like someone who rides a motorcycle. Do you have a leather jacket?”
“Yeah. I knew it. You just have that look.”
No negativity. No judgment.
Just an observation based upon what I looked like rather than anything she read online. When the cover of the book is less damning than the online summary, we're in trouble.